Md. should say no to vouchers

April 02, 2010

Maryland public schools have earned bragging rights. Education Week magazine ranks us No. 1 nationally -- again. Newsweek puts Maryland as No. 1 in the nation for Top Public High Schools in America. And, again, the College Board ranks Maryland No. 1 in the country for the number of students who take and pass the AP test. By making public education funding a priority, public schools have been able to lower class size, provide all-day kindergarten and bring additional help to students with special needs. The Maryland State Education Association is proud of these accomplishments and proud of the educators, administrators, parents and elected officials who have worked together to make Maryland a sterling example of excellence.

Yet a bill that is making its way through the Maryland General Assembly is bad news for Maryland and our top-ranked public school system. Senate Bill 385 (called "BOAST") provides tax credits for businesses making donations to private schools, thereby shrinking state revenues and the education-funding pie. This is where the "boasting" ends and the worrying begins because making cuts to public education while setting up a potential stream of funding for private schools is nothing to brag about. The result will be a tricky balancing act where the ones who fall are likely to be public school students.

Despite the fact that Maryland's public schools rank No. 1 overall, we are aware that many students and schools are not yet experiencing the success expected. Across the state, budgets are being cut and class sizes are increasing. In many counties, positions are being eliminated and educators are facing furloughs, adding greater pressure to already burdened workloads and expectations. Increasingly, public schools are being challenged to do more with less. There is no question that parents have a right to choose between a public and private school education for their children. And while this legislation purports to give low-income families that option, there is no guarantee that will happen. There is no provision in the bill to ensure that the funding will, in fact, go to low-income families.

Other states with similar tax credit laws have seen private tuition costs nearly double, making them even more elusive to low-income students. A recent legislative audit in Pennsylvania showed that 6,000 students were left without a voucher after the state legislature cut $15 million dollars from its program. As a result, private school advocates screamed foul and pushed for cuts in other areas, including public school funding. Additionally, the audit raised great concerns about the lack of standards for "innovative education programs," which distribute funding for public schools. There is no measuring stick for education value or purpose, opening a door for watered down activities where the losers are once again public school children. Maryland's legislation has the same vague language of "innovative education programs."

In Arizona, The East Valley Tribune investigative report revealed that it is Arizona's affluent families who benefit the most from tuition tax programs and that the majority of those families that benefit from the tax credit program already send their children to private schools. In reviewing a similar statewide program, the report uncovered massive inefficiencies, including windfall administrative fee profits by school tuition organizations and tax credits manipulated in violation of IRS charitable contribution rules.

So, how successful was the program in helping those with the greatest needs? After 12 years, the Arizona program that envisioned helping low-income students and their families actually disproportionally benefited wealthier families while driving tuition up for all. (For more information, see www.eastvalleytribune.com/page/taxcredits.) The unfortunate fact is that Maryland could mirror the experience of Arizona.

The Maryland State Education Association and other public school advocates have worked tirelessly to ensure a great public school for every child. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) academies, the steady rise in SAT scores and the progress being made toward closing the achievement gaps are all at risk without adequate resources to continue. To take hard-won monies away from public schools and divert those funds to private schools will jeopardize the gains Maryland public schools are making. The Maryland State Education Association is proud of Maryland's national recognition and the educators who remain committed to excellence and to the students who work hard to meet the goals set for them. Maryland's track record is a reason to boast. Shifting public money to private schools is not.

Clara Floyd, Annapolis

The writer is president of the Maryland State Education Association.

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